Few films centered on the events of World War II have remained as perennially popular as has ‘The Great Escape.’ The events depicted in the Steve McQueen film are based on a real escape from a Luftwaffe POW camp near the end of the war in Europe. The scene of the escape was Stalag Luft III in Żagań, Poland, and the mastermind of the escape was RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell.
Bushell had become a Squadron Leader in 1939, and on his first engagement he was shot down and taken prisoner by German forces. He bounced around several different German prisoner camps and attempted to escape from each of them, all unsuccessfully. In October 1942 he was transferred to Stalag Luft III, the German camp for captured air servicemen. Bushell was housed in the North compound with the other British airmen, and it was from that compound that Bushell hatched his ambitious escape plan.
He formed an ‘Escape Committee’ to help organize the effort. His plan called for the simultaneous digging of three separate tunnels, which he called ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry.’ Bushell knew that work on three separate tunnels raised the chances that one of them would succeed even if the others were discovered. Work began in the Spring of 1943, and in September, German guards discovered tunnel ‘Tom.’ The one tunnel that was successfully completed was tunnel ‘Harry,’ and as night fell on 24 March 1944, the men began their escape.
Bushell had hoped to help at least 200 men escape Stalag Luft III, but when the escape began, they discovered that their tunnel had failed to reach far enough into the forest to provide adequate cover. They were forced to slow the escape process in order to avoid the sentry patrols, and by dawn on 25 March only 76 men had escaped. These 76 had managed to obtain civilian clothes and forged documents, often times with the help of sympathetic German soldiers. As they dispersed across the countryside, many by boarding trains, their hope of not being recaptured grew. Sadly, 73 of the 76 men were recaptured within days, mainly because their forged papers drew suspicion.
Hitler desired to make an example of the recaptured escapees and ordered 50 of them to be executed. In the days following their recapture, 50 of the men, including Roger Bushell, were executed without trial: 21 of them were British, six Canadian, 6 Polish, 5 Australian, and 12 from several other nations. Following the war, the British military felt that these executions were unwarranted and qualified as war crimes, which they may well have. A Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Air Force Police was commissioned with finding and trying those responsible for the Stalag Luft III murders, and in the end they identified 72 individual perpetrators of the war crimes: 21 were tried and executed, 17 were tried and imprisoned, and the balance had either died during the war or were acquitted.